History and Class Consciousness Georg Lukcs 1923

Critical Observations on Rosa Luxemburg’s “Critique of the Russian Revolution”

PAUL LEVI has felt impelled to publish a pamphlet that Comrade Rosa Luxemburg composed hurriedly while in Breslau gaol and that has survived as an incomplete fragment. Publication took place in the midst of the most violent struggles against the German C.P. and the Third International; it thus represents a stage in this struggle no less than the ‘Vorwrts’ revelations and Friesland’s pamphlet — though it serves other deeper purposes. The aim this time is not to undermine the standing of the German C.P. or to weaken confidence in the policy of the Third International; it is to strike a blow at the theoretical basis of Bolshevik organisation and tactics. This is the cause in whose support the revered authority of Rosa Luxemburg is to be enlisted. The theory that would justify the liquidation of the Third International and its sections is to be quarried from her posthumous works.

Hence it is not enough to point out that Rosa Luxemburg later revised her views. It is necessary to see to what extent she was in the right. For — seen abstractly — it might well be the case that she had continued to develop her views in the wrong direction in the first months of the Revolution; and that the revision of her position noted by Comrades Warski and Zetkin could mean she had taken the wrong turning. Hence independently of Rosa Luxemburg’s later attitude to the opinions set down here — it is with these opinions that the discussion must come to grips. All the more as some of the differences of opinion between Rosa Luxemburg and the Bolsheviks had already come to light in the Junius Pamphlet and Lenin’s criticism of that, and indeed as early as the criticism of Lenin’s book One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back which Rosa Luxemburg published in the Neue Zeit in 1904. These differences were still influential in the formulation of the Spartacus programme.

What is at issue, then, is the substantive content of the pamphlet. But even here the principle, the method, the theoretical foundation, the general view of the character of the revolution which determines the stand to be taken on individual questions, is more important than the attitude adopted to particular problems of the Russian Revolution. For to a great extent these have been superseded by the passage of time.

Even Levi admits this in the case of the agrarian problem. A polemic on that point, then, is superfluous. It is necessary only to indicate the methodological point which takes us one step nearer to the central problem of this study: to the false view of the character of the proletarian revolution. Rosa Luxemburg emphasises: “A socialist government which has come to power must in any event do one thing: it must take measures which lead in the direction of those fundamental prerequisites for a later socialist reform of agriculture; it must at least avoid everything which may bar the way to those measures.” And so she reproaches Lenin and the Bolsheviks with having omitted to do this, indeed, with having done the opposite. If this opinion stood in isolation one might confine oneself to pointing out that Comrade Luxemburg — like almost everyone else in 1918 — was inadequately informed of the true events in Russia. But when we look at this opinion in the context of her other views we can see at once that she overestimates by a long chalk the actual power which the Bolsheviks had at their disposal for choosing the form in which to settle the agrarian question. The agrarian revolution was a given fact and one wholly independent of the will of the Bolsheviks and even of the proletariat. The peasants would have divided up the land in any circumstances in accordance with the elementary expression of their class interests. And had the Bolsheviks resisted them they would have been swept away by this elemental movement just as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries had been swept away by it.

The correct way to put the question about the agrarian problem is not to ask whether the Bolsheviks’ land reform was a socialist measure or at least one that would lead in the direction of socialism. But whether, in the situation as it then existed, when the rising revolutionary movement was striving towards the point of decision, all the elemental forces of the dissolving bourgeois society could be marshalled against a bourgeoisie that was preparing for the counter-revolution. (And this regardless of whether they were ‘purely’ proletarian or petty bourgeois, regardless of whether they were heading in the direction of socialism.) In the face of an elemental peasant movement striving after the distribution of land a decision had to be taken. And this decision could only be a clear, unambiguous Yes or No. Either one had to place oneself at the head of the movement, or else to smash it by force of arms. And in that event one would have become the prisoner of the necessarily united bourgeoisie, as in fact happened to the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. At that moment there could be no thought of a gradual “deflection” of the peasant movement “in the direction of socialism”. This could and had to be attempted later. How far these attempts really failed (and in my view the dossier on this is far from complete; there are ‘failures’ which nevertheless bear fruit in later contexts) and what the causes of this failure were cannot be investigated here. The issue here is the decision of the Bolsheviks at the moment when they seized power. And it must be firmly stated that the Bolsheviks simply were not given the choice between an agrarian reform leading in the direction of socialism and one leading away from it. The only choice they had was either to mobilise the liberated energies of the elemental peasant movement in the service of the proletarian revolution; or, by pitting themselves against the peasants, to isolate the proletariat hopelessly and thus to help the counter-revolution to victory.

Rosa Luxemburg herself admits this candidly: “As a political measure to fortify the proletarian socialist government, it was an excellent tactical move. Unfortunately, however, it had two sides to it; and the reverse side consisted in the fact that the direct seizure of the land by the peasants has in general nothing at all in common with socialist economy.” But when, despite this, she links her correct appreciation of the Bolsheviks’ political tactics to her criticism of their socio-economic mode of action, we can already glimpse the nature of her evaluation of the Russian, of the proletarian Revolution.

It consists in the overestimation of its purely proletarian character, and therefore the overestimation both of the external power and of the inner clarity and maturity that the proletarian class can possess and in fact did possess in the first phase of the revolution. And at the same time we see as a corollary the underestimation of the importance of the non-proletarian elements in the revolution. And this includes the non-proletarian elements outside as well as the power wielded by such ideologies within the proletariat itself. And this false assessment of the true driving forces leads to the decisive point of her misinterpretation: to the underplaying of the role of the party in the revolution and of its conscious political action, as opposed to the necessity of being driven along by the elemental forces of economic development.


Some readers may find it exaggerated to turn this into a question of principle. But to make the justice of our assessment stand out more clearly we must return to the particular questions raised in the pamphlet. Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude to the nationalities problem in the Russian Revolution leads back to the critical discussions of the war-period, to the Junius pamphlet and to Lenin’s criticism of it.

The thesis which Lenin always stubbornly contested (not only on the occasion of the Junius pamphlet, although this is where it was formulated most clearly and succinctly) went thus: “In the era of rampant imperialism there can no longer be any national wars.”[2] It might seem as if the divergence of views here were merely theoretical. For Junius and Lenin were in complete agreement about the imperialist character of the World War. Even to the point of seeing that even those sectors of the war which taken in isolation were national wars, had to be considered as imperialist phenomena because of their connections with the total imperialist complex. (As in the case of Serbia and the correct behaviour of the Serbian comrades.) But in practice substantive questions of the first importance immediately present themselves.

In the first place, a situation in which national wars once again become possible is not indeed likely but neither is it wholly out of the question. Its realisation depends on the speed of the transition from the phase of imperialist war into the phase of civil war. So that it is wrong to universalise the imperialist character of the present to the point of denying absolutely that national wars are possible. For if that is done the socialist politician might find himself in a situation where his adherence to principle would lead him to behave in a reactionary manner.

In the second place, the revolts of the colonial and semicolonial peoples must necessarily be national wars to which the revolutionary parties must by all means lend their support; to be indifferent to them would be directly counter-revolutionary. (See Serrati’s attitude to Kemal.)

In the third place, it must not be forgotten that nationalist ideologies still survive and not only in the stratum of the petty bourgeoisie (whose behaviour can be very favourable to the Revolution in certain circumstances) but in the proletariat itself and especially in the proletariat of oppressed nations. And their interest in true internationalism cannot be aroused by intellectual utopians who behave as if the socialist world to come had already arrived and the nationality problem no longer existed. It can be aroused only by the practical proof that the victorious Proletariat of an oppressor nation has broken with the oppressive tendencies of imperialism with all its consequences to the point where it accepts the right of self-determination “including national independence”. Of course, this slogan must be counterbalanced by the slogan of ‘belonging together’, of federation. But the mere fact of victory does not free the proletariat from contamination by capitalist and nationalist ideologies, and if it is to pass successfully through the transitional ideological phase, then it will need both slogans together. Notwithstanding the setbacks of 1918, the policy of the Bolsheviks on this issue has turned out to have been the right one. For after Brest-Litovsk, even without the notion of the right of complete self-determination, Soviet Russia would have lost the frontier states and the Ukraine. But in the absence of that policy, it would never have been able to recover the latter territories nor the Caucasian Republics, etc.

Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism has been refuted on this point by history itself. And we should not have concerned ourselves with it so extensively (Lenin having already refuted the theory of it in his critique of the Junius pamphlet, Against the Current) if we had not perceived in it the same view of the character of the proletarian revolution that we have already analysed in the case of the agrarian problem. Here, too, Rosa Luxemburg overlooks the choice between ‘impure’ socialist necessities which fate forced upon the proletarian revolution right from the start. She overlooks the necessity for the revolutionary party of the proletariat to mobilise all forces which were revolutionary at that moment and so to consolidate the revolutionary front as clearly and powerfully as possible against the moment when the clash with the counter-revolution would come. She constantly opposes to the exigencies of the moment the principles of future stages of the revolution. This practice forms the basis of the ultimately crucial arguments of this pamphlet: concerning force and democracy, the Soviet system and the party. It is therefore important to understand the real tenor of the opinions expressed.


In this pamphlet Rosa Luxemburg joins the ranks of those who emphatically disapprove of the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly, the setting-up of the system of soviets, the denial of civil rights to the bourgeoisie, the lack of ‘freedom’ and the use of terror. We are therefore faced with the task of showing what fundamental theoretical beliefs brought Rosa Luxemburg — the unsurpassed prophet, the unforgettable teacher and leader of revolutionary Marxism — into such a sharp conflict with the revolutionary policy of the Bolsheviks. I have already indicated the most important factors in her appraisal of the situation. It is now essential to take one further step into Rosa Luxemburg’s essay so as to be able to grasp the point from which these beliefs follow logically.

This point is the overestimation of the organic character of the course of history. In the debate with Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg has incisively demonstrated that the idea of an organic ‘growth’ into socialism is untenable. She showed convincingly that history advances dialectically and that the internal contradictions of the capitalist system are constantly intensified; and this is so not merely in the sphere of pure economics but also in the relations between economics and politics. Thus at one point we find clearly stated: “The relations of production of capitalist society become increasingly socialist but its political and legal arrangements erect an ever loftier wall between capitalist and socialist society."[3] This implies the necessity of a violent, revolutionary break with prevailing social trends. Admittedly we can already see here the seeds of a belief that the Revolution was needed only to remove the ‘political’ obstacles from the path of economic developments. But such a glaring light is thrown upon the dialectical contradictions in capitalist production that it is hardly possible to justify such a conclusion in this context. Moreover, Rosa Luxemburg does not deny the necessity of violence in connection with the Russian Revolution. She declares: “Socialism presupposes a series of acts of violence — against property, etc.” And later, in the Spartacus Programme it is recognised that “the violence of the bourgeois counter-revolution must be opposed by the revolutionary violence of the proletariat”.[4]

However, this recognition of the role of violence refers only to the negative aspect, to the sweeping away of obstacles; it has no relevance to social construction. This cannot be “imposed or introduced by ukase”. “The socialist system of society,” Rosa Luxemburg claims, “should only be and can only be a historical product, born of the school of its own experiences; and — just like organic nature of which, in the last analysis, it forms a part — has the fine habit of always producing, along with any real social need, the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution.”

I shall not pause to dwell on the singularly undialectical nature of this line of thought on the part of an otherwise great dialectician. It is enough to note in passing that the rigid contrast, the mechanical separation of the ‘positive’ and the ‘negative’, of ‘tearing down’ and ‘building up’ directly contradicts the actuality of the Revolution. For in the revolutionary measures taken by the proletarian state, especially those taken directly after the seizing of power, the ‘positive’ cannot be separated from the ‘negative’ even conceptually, let alone in practice. The process of struggling against the bourgeoisie, of seizing from its hands the instruments of power in economic conflict coincides — especially at the beginning of the revolution — with the first steps towards organising the economy. It is self-evident that these first attempts will have to be extensively revised later on. Nevertheless, as long as the class struggle persists — that is to say, for a long time — even the later forms of organisation will preserve the ‘negative’ quality of the struggle, i.e. the tendency to tear down and keep down. Even though the economic forms of the victorious proletarian revolutions to come in Europe may be very different from those in Russia, it yet remains very doubtful that the stage of ‘war communism’ (to which Rosa Luxemburg’s criticism refers) will be wholly avoidable.

Even more significant than the historical aspects of the passage just quoted is the method it reveals. We can perceive in it a tendency that can be summed up perhaps most clearly as the ideological organic growth into socialism. I know that Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first people to advance the opposite view and point to the fact that the transition from capitalism to socialism was characterised by frequent crises and reversions to earlier stages.[5] In this work, too, there is no lack of such passages. If I nevertheless speak of such a tendency I obviously do not mean to accuse her of a kind of opportunism, or of imagining that economic development would bring the proletariat to an adequate ideological maturity so that it merely has to pluck the fruits of this development and violence is needed only to remove ‘political’ obstacles from its path. Rosa Luxemburg had no illusions about the inevitable relapses, corrective measures and errors of the revolutionary period. Her tendency to overestimate the organic element in history appears only in the — dogmatic — conviction that history produces “along with any real social need the means to its satisfaction, along with the task simultaneously the solution”.

This overestimation of the spontaneous, elemental forces of the Revolution, above all in the class summoned by history to lead it, determines her attitude to the Constituent Assembly. She reproaches Lenin and Trotsky with having a “rigid, schematic view” because they concluded from the composition of the Assembly that it was unsuited to be the organ of the proletarian revolution. She exclaims: “Yet how all historical experience contradicts this! Experience demonstrates quite the contrary: namely that the living fluid of the popular mood continuously flows around the representative bodies, penetrates them, guides them.” And in fact, in an earlier passage, she appeals to the experience of the English and French Revolutions and points to the transformations undergone by their parliamentary bodies. This fact is perfectly correct. But Rosa Luxemburg does not sufficiently emphasise that the ‘transformations’ were devilishly close to the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly. The revolutionary organisations of those elements of the revolution that constituted the most powerful driving force at the time (the “soldiers’ council?’ of the English army, the Paris Sections, etc.) always used force to evict recalcitrant elements from the parliamentary bodies and it was in this way that they brought such bodies into line with the state of the revolution. Such transformations in a bourgeois revolution could for the most part amount only to shifts within the parliament, the fighting organ of the bourgeois class. Moreover, it is very noteworthy how much greater was the impact of extra-parliamentary (semi-proletarian) elements in the Great French Revolution in comparison to the English Revolution. Via 1871 and 1905 the Russian Revolution of 1917 brings the transformation of these intensifications of quantity into changes of quality. The soviets, the organisations of the most progressive elements of the Revolution were not content this time with ‘purging’ the Assembly of all parties other than the Bolsheviks and the left-wing Socialist Revolutionaries (and on the basis of her own analysis Rosa Luxemburg would presumably have no objection to this). But they went even further and put themselves in their place. Out of the proletarian (and semi-proletarian) organs for the control and the promotion of the bourgeois revolution developed the governing battle organisations of the victorious proletariat.


Now, Rosa Luxemburg absolutely refuses to take this ‘leap’. Not merely because she greatly underestimates the abrupt, violent, ‘inorganic’ character of those past transformations of parliamentary bodies. But because she rejects the soviet as the chief weapon in the period of transition, as the weapon by which to fight for and gain by force the presuppositions of socialism. She sees in the soviets the ‘superstructure’ of that period in which the socialist transformation has been largely accomplished. “It makes no sense to regard the right of suffrage as a utopian product of fantasy, cut loose from social reality. And it is for this reason that it is not a serious instrument of the proletarian dictatorship. It is an anachronism, an anticipation of the juridical situation which is proper on the basis of an already completed socialist economy, but not in the transition period of the proletarian dictatorship.”

With the imperturbable logic characteristic of her thought even when it is in error, Rosa Luxemburg here touches upon one of the questions most vital to a theoretical understanding of the period of transition. This is the question of the role to be played by the state (the soviets, the form of state of the victorious proletariat) in the socio-economic transformation of society.

Is it merely the case that a condition of society brought about by economic forces beyond the control of consciousness or, at best, reflected in a ‘false’ consciousness is to be sanctioned and protected post facto by the proletarian state and by its laws? Or do these, the organising forms of the proletariat, exercise a consciously determining influence on the economic structure of the period of transition? No doubt, Marx’s statement in the Critique of the Gotha Programme to the effect that “Law can never be higher than the economic structure of society ...” remains wholly valid. But this does not mean that the social function of the proletarian state and hence its place within the whole framework of proletarian society, should be the same as that of the bourgeois state within bourgeois society. In a letter to Konrad Schmidt, Engels assigns to the state an essentially negative role within bourgeois society.[6] The state can help an existing economic development to advance, it can work against it or it can “cut it off from certain paths and prescribe certain others”. And he adds: “But it is obvious that in cases two and three the political power can do great damage to the economic development and result in the squandering of great masses of energy and material.” We may ask, therefore, is the economic and social function of the proletarian state the same as that of the bourgeois state? Can it do no more than — in the most favourable case — accelerate or retard an economic development independent of it (i.e. does the economic situation have total primacy vis--vis the state?). It is obvious that an answer to Rosa Luxemburg’s objections to the Bolsheviks depends on the answer to this question. If it is in the affirmative, then Rosa Luxemburg is right: the proletarian state (the soviet system) can only arise as an ideological ‘superstructure’ after and in consequence of a socio-economic revolution that has already taken place.

However, the situation looks quite different if we see that the function of the proletarian state is to lay the foundations for the socialist, i.e. the conscious organisation of the economy. This is not to suggest that anyone (and least of all the Russian C.P.) believes that socialism can simply be ‘created by decree’. The foundations of capitalist modes of production and with them their ‘necessary natural laws’ do not simply vanish when the proletariat seizes power or even as a result of the socialisation, however thoroughgoing, of the means of production. But their elimination and replacement by a consciously. organised socialist economics must not be thought of only as a lengthy process but as a consciously conducted, stubborn battle. Step by step the ground must be wrested from this ‘necessity’. Every overestimation of the ripeness of circumstances or of the power of the proletariat, every underestimation of the strength of the opposing forces has to be paid for bitterly in the form of crises, relapses and economic developments that inexorably revert to the situation before the point of departure. Yet the observation that the power of the proletariat and the possibility of conscious economic planning are often extremely limited should not lead us to conclude that the ‘economics’ of socialism will prevail — just as under capitalism — by virtue of their own momentum and through the ‘blind laws’ of the forces behind them. As Lenin remarks in his interpretation of the letter to Kautsky of 12 September, 1891, “Engels does not mean that ‘economics’ would of itself clear every obstacle out of the way.... The adaptation of politics to economics will follow inevitably but not all at once, not straightforwardly, not smoothly and not directly."[7]

The conscious, the organised planning of the economy can only be introduced consciously and the organ which will introduce it is in fact the proletariat, the soviet system. Thus the soviets signify in effect “the anticipation of the legal position” of a later phase of class stratification; however, they are not a utopia suspended in mid-air but, on the contrary, the only instrument that is suitable really to call this anticipated situation into existence. For socialism would never happen ‘by itself’, and as the result of an inevitable natural economic development. The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilisation and a new barbarism.

It is this that constitutes the most profound difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. The ability of bourgeois revolutions to storm ahead with such brilliant elan is grounded socially, in the fact that thy are drawing the consequences of an almost completed economic and social process in a society whose feudal and absolutist structure has been profoundly undermined politically, governmentally, juridically, etc., by the vigorous upsurge of capitalism. The true revolutionary element is the economic transformation of the feudal system of production into a capitalist one so that it would be possible in theory for this process to take place without a bourgeois revolution, without political upheaval on the part of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. And in that case those parts of the feudal and absolutist superstructure that were not eliminated by (revolutions from above’ would collapse of their own accord when capitalism was already fully developed. (The German situation fits this pattern in certain respects.)

No doubt, a proletarian revolution, too, would be unthinkable if its economic premises and preconditions had not already been nurtured in the bosom of capitalist society by the evolution of the capitalist system of production. But the enormous difference between the two types of process lies in the fact that capitalism already developed within feudalism, thus bringing about its dissolution. In contrast to this, it would be a utopian fantasy to imagine that anything tending towards socialism could arise within capitalism apart from, on the one hand, the objective economic premises that make it a possibility which, however, can only be transformed into the true elements of a socialist system of production after and in consequence of the collapse of capitalism; and, on the other hand, the development of the proletariat as a class. Consider the development undergone by manufacture and the capitalist system of tenure even when the feudal social system was still in existence. As far as these were concerned it was only necessary to clear away the legal obstacles to their free development. By contrast, the concentration of capital in cartels, trusts, etc., does constitute, it is true., an unavoidable premise for the conversion of a capitalist mode of production into a socialist one. But even the most highly developed capitalist concentration will still be qualitatively different, even economically, from a socialist system and can neither change into one ‘by itself’ nor will it be amenable to such change ‘through legal devices’ within the framework of capitalist society. The tragi-comic collapse of all ‘attempts to introduce socialism’ in Germany and Austria furnishes ample proof of this.

The fact that after the fall of capitalism a lengthy and painful process sets in that makes this very attempt is no contradiction. On the contrary, it would be a totally undialectical, unhistorical mode of thought which, from the proposition that socialism could come into existence only as a conscious transformation of the whole of society, would infer that this must take place at one stroke and not as the end product of a process. This process, however, is qualitatively different from the transformation of feudalism into bourgeois society. And it is this very qualitative difference that is expressed in the different function of the state in the revolution (which as Engels says “is no longer a state in the true sense”); it is expressed most plainly in the qualitatively different relation of politics to economics. The very fact that the proletariat is aware of the role of the state in the proletarian revolution, in contrast to the ideological masking of it in bourgeois revolutions, an awareness that foresees and overturns in contrast to the post festum recognitions of the bourgeoisie, points up the difference sharply enough. In her criticism of the replacement of the Constituent Assembly by the soviets Rosa Luxemburg fails to note this: she imagines the proletarian revolution as having the structural forms of bourgeois revolutions.


This sharp antithesis between an ‘organic’ and a dialectical, revolutionary appraisal of the situation can lead us even more deeply into Rosa Luxemburg’s train of thought, namely to the problem of the role of the party in the revolution and from there to the Bolshevik conception of the party and its consequences for organisation and tactics.

The antithesis between Lenin and Luxemburg has its roots quite a long way in the past. As is well known, at the time of the first conflict between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks on the question of organisation, Rosa Luxemburg took sides against the latter. Her opposition Was not dictated by political tactics but purely by organisational considerations. In almost all tactical issues (mass strikes, appraisal of the Revolution of 1905, imperialism, struggle against the coming World War, etc.), Rosa Luxemburg was in harmony with the Bolsheviks. In Stuttgart *at the time of the decisive resolution on the war she was in fact the Bolsheviks’ representative.

Nevertheless, the antagonism is much less episodic than the long history of tactical political agreement would make it appear; even though, on the other hand, it is not enough to justify inferring a strict parting of the ways. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were agreed politically and theoretically about the need to combat opportunism. The conflict between them lay in their answers to the question whether or not the campaign against opportunism should be conducted as an intellectual struggle within the revolutionary party of the proletariat or whether it was to be resolved on the level of organisation.

Rosa Luxemburg opposes the latter view. Firstly, because she finds exaggerated the central role assigned by the Bolsheviks to questions of organisation as the guarantees of the spirit of revolution in the workers’ movement. She maintains the opposite view that real revolutionary spirit is to be sought and found exclusively in the elemental spontaneity of the masses. Unlike them the central party organisations have always a conservative, braking function. She believes that with a really thorough centralisation “the difference between the eager attack of the mass and the prudent position of Social Democracy"[8] could only be exacerbated.

Secondly, she regards the form of organisation itself as something which grows and not as something ‘made’. “In the social-democratic movement organisation too ... is a historical product of class struggle and to it social democracy has only to add political consciousness."[9] And this belief in turn is based on her overall view of the probable course of the revolutionary movement. We have already seen the practical consequences of this view in her critique of the Bolshevik agrarian reform and her slogan of the right to self-determination. She states: “Social Democracy has always contended that it represents not only the class interests of the proletariat but also the progressive aspirations of the whole of contemporary society. It represents the interests of all who are oppressed by bourgeois domination. This must not be understood merely in the sense that all these interests are ideally contained in the socialist programme. Historical evolution translates the given proposition into reality. In its capacity as a political party Social Democracy gradually becomes the haven of all discontented elements in our society and thus of the entire people, as contrasted to the tiny minority of the capitalist masters."[10]

It is apparent from this that in her view the development of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary fronts proceeds ‘organically’ (even before the revolution itself becomes imminent). The party becomes the organisational focus of all the strata whom the processes of history have brought into action against the bourgeoisie. It is necessary only to ensure that the idea of class struggle does not become adulterated and infected by petty-bourgeois notions. In this the centralised organ can and should help. But only in the sense that it should be “at most a coercive instrument enforcing the will of the proletarian majority in the party”.[11]

Thus, on the one hand, Rosa Luxemburg starts from the premise that the working class will enter the revolution as a unified revolutionary body which has been neither contaminated nor led astray by the democratic illusions of bourgeois Society.[12] On the other hand, she appears to assume that the petty-bourgeois strata that are mortally threatened in their social existence by the revolutionary aggravation of the economic situation will join the ranks of the fighting proletariat even to the extent of establishing organisational, party bonds. If this assumption is correct its illuminating corollary will be the rejection of the Bolshevik conception of the party. For the political basis of that conception is the recognition that the proletariat must indeed carry out the revolution in league with the other classes that are in conflict with the bourgeoisie, but not as part of the same organisation. In the process it will necessarily come into conflict with certain proletarian strata who are fighting on the side of the bourgeoisie against the revolutionary proletariat. In this context it must not be forgotten that the cause of the first breach with the Mensheviks was not just the question of the regulations governing organisation. It involved also the problem of an alliance with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie and the problem of a coalition in order to carry out. and secure the bourgeois revolution (which among other things meant in practice the betrayal of the revolutionary peasant movement).

In all questions of political tactics Rosa Luxemburg was at one with the Bolsheviks against their opportunist enemies; she was always not merely the most penetrating and passionate but also the most profound and radical unmasker of every kind of opportunism. But we see clearly here why when it came to appraising the danger represented by opportunism, and the methods needed to combat it, she had to choose another path. For if the war with opportunism is conceived exclusively as an intellectual conflict within the party it must obviously be waged so as to put the whole emphasis on convincing the supporters of opportunism and on achieving a majority within the party. Naturally, it follows that the struggle against opportunism will disintegrate into a series of individual skirmishes in which the ally of yesterday can become the opponent of today and vice versa. A war against opportunism as a tendency cannot crystallise out: the terrain of the ‘Intellectual conflicts’ changes from one issue to the next and with it changes the composition of the rival groups. (Thus Kautsky in conflict with Bernstein and in the debate on the mass strike; Pannekoek in this and also in the dispute about accumulation; Lensch’s attitude on this question and in the war, and so on.) This unorganised course of events was naturally not completely able to prevent the emergence of a right wing, a centre and a left wing, even in the non-Russian parties. But the merely episodic nature of these coalitions meant that in intellectual and organisational (i.e. party) terms the disagreements could not be clearly defined and this led necessarily to quite false groupings. When these did become fixed organisationally they became major obstacles to clarification in the working class. (Thus Strobel in the ‘Internationale’ Group; ‘Pacifism’ as a factor causing a breach with the right wing; Bernstein in the Independent Socialist Party; Serrati in Zimmerwald; Klara Zetkin at the International Conference of Women.) These dangers were increased by the fact that — as in Western and Central Europe the party apparatus was mainly in the hands of the centre or the right wing — the unorganised, merely intellectual war against opportunism easily and frequently became an assault on the party form as such. (Pannekoek, Rhle, etc.)

At the time of the first Lenin-Luxemburg debate and directly after, these dangers could not yet be clearly seen, at least not by those who were not in a position to evaluate critically the experience of the first Russian Revolution. Although Rosa Luxemburg was one of the greatest experts on Russian affairs she nevertheless adopted in all essentials the position of the non-Russian Left which was recruited chiefly from that radical stratum of the workers’ movement that had had no practical revolutionary experience. That she did so can only be explained in terms of her coverall organic view’. In view of what has been said, it is illuminating to see that in her otherwise magisterial analysis of the mass-strike movements of the first Russian Revolution she makes no mention whatever of the role played by the Mensheviks in the political movements in those years. At the same time she was perfectly aware of the tactical and political dangers implicit in every opportunistic attitude and she fought them vigorously. But she held to the opinion that swings to the Right should be and are dealt with — more or less spontaneously — by the ‘organic’ development of the workers’ movement. Hence she ends her polemic against Lenin with the words: “Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful and more valuable than the infallibility of the best of all possible ‘Central Committees’."[13]


With the outbreak of the World War, with the emergence of the civil war this quondam ‘theoretical’ question became a burning issue in practice. The problem of organisation was converted into one of political tactics. The problem of Menshevism became the crucial issue for the proletarian revolution. The walkover victory gained by the imperialist bourgeoisie over the whole of the Second International in the period of mobilisation in 1914, and the fact that this victory could be extended and consolidated during the World War, cannot possibly be understood as a ‘misfortune’ or as the inevitable consequence of ‘betrayal’. If the revolutionary workers’ movement wished to recover from this defeat and even turn it into the foundation of the victorious battles still to come it was absolutely essential for it to see this failure, this ‘betrayal’ in the context of the history of the workers’ movement; social chauvinism and pacifism, etc., would have then to be recognised as logical extensions of opportunism.

To have seen this is one of the permanent gains resulting from Lenin’s activity during the war. And his criticism of. the Junius Pamphlet begins at that very point, namely with the failure to engage with opportunism as a general tendency. Admittedly, the Junius Pamphlet and the ‘Internationale'* were both full of theoretically correct polemics against the treachery of the Right and the vacillations of the Centre of the German workers’ movement. But this polemic remained on the level of theory and propaganda rather than organisation because it was still informed by the belief that the debate was concerned only with ‘differences of opinion’ within the revolutionary party of the proletariat. It is true that the Guiding Principles attached to the Junius Pamphlet did include the organisational proposal for the founding of a new International (Theses 10-12). But this proposal was left suspended in mid-air as the intellectual and therefore the organisational backing needed to put it into practice were not forthcoming.

At this point the problem of organisation is transformed into a political one which concerns the whole of the revolutionary proletariat. The failure of all the workers’ parties when confronted with the World War must be seen as a world historical fact, i.e. as the inevitable consequence of the previous history of the workers’ movement. The fact was that almost without exception an influential section of the leadership in the workers’ parties openly went over to the side of the bourgeoisie while another group was tacitly and secretly in league with it. That both these groups have succeeded in retaining their hold on the crucial strata of the proletariat both intellectually and organisationally must be made the point of departure for the analysis of the situation and of the tasks of the revolutionary workers’ party. It must be clearly understood that as two fronts gradually crystallise out in the civil war the proletariat will at first enter the struggle deeply divided. This division cannot be made to disappear by discussions. It is a vain hope to rely on the fact that in time even these groups of leaders will be ‘convinced’ by the correctness of revolutionary beliefs; and that therefore the workers’ movement will be able to construct its — revolutionary — unity ‘organically’ and from ‘within’.

The problem arises: how can the great mass of the proletariat which is instinctively revolutionary but has not reached the stage of clear consciousness be rescued from the hands of this leadership? And it is obvious that it is precisely the ‘organic’ theoretical character of the conflict that has made it so easy for the Mensheviks to conceal from the proletariat for so long the fact that in the hour of decision they stand on the side of the bourgeoisie.

That part of the proletariat that spontaneously rebels against its leaders’ behaviour in this respect and that longs for revolutionary leadership must assemble in an organisation. The genuine revolutionary parties and groups which thus arise must contrive to win the confidence of the great masses and remove them from the power of the opportunists by their actions (and furthermore it is absolutely essential that they acquire their own revolutionary party organi sations). Until this is accomplished there is no question of a civil war taking place despite the fact that the overall situation is consistently and increasingly revolutionary.

And the world situation is — objectively — consistently and increasingly revolutionary. In her classical work The Accumulation of Capital, a book which the revolutionary movement, to its own great detriment, has neither appreciated nor profited from adequately, Rosa Luxemburg herself has provided the theoretical basis for understanding the — objectively — revolutionary character of the situation. She shows there that as capitalism develops it destroys those strata which are neither capitalist nor proletarian. This analysis contains the socio-economic theory that suggests what the revolutionary tactics of the Bolsheviks ought to be vis--vis the non-proletarian strata of workers. As the point approaches where capitalism reaches the apex of its development this destructive process must take more and more violent forms. Broader and broader strata separate out from the — seemingly — solid edifice of bourgeois society; they then bring confusion into the ranks of the bourgeoisie, they unleash movements which do not themselves proceed in the direction of socialism but which through the violence of the impact they make do hasten the realisation of the preconditions of socialism: namely, the collapse of the bourgeoisie.

In this situation which causes ever wider rifts in bourgeois society and which drives the proletariat on to revolution whether it would or not, the Mensheviks have openly or covertly gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. They stand behind enemy lines opposed to the revolutionary proletariat and the other instinctively rebellious strata (and perhaps nations). But to recognise this is to see that Rosa Luxemburg’s view of the course of the revolution collapses and it was this view upon which her opposition to the Bolshevik form of organisation was based. In The Accumulation of Capital Rosa Luxemburg provided the most profound economic foundations for this understanding. As Lenin points out, she was only a step away from the clear formulation of it at many points in the Junius Pamphlet. But in her criticism of the Russian Revolution she was not yet able to draw the necessary conclusions from it. Even in 1918, even after the experiences of the first stage of the Revolution in Russia, she seems to have regarded the problem of Menshevism with unchanged eyes.


This explains why she takes it upon herself to defend the ‘rights of freedom’ against the Bolsheviks. “Freedom,” she says, “is always freedom for the one who thinks differently.” Which means freedom for the other ‘currents’ in the workers’ movement: for the Mensheviks, and the Socialist Revolutionaries. It is obvious that Rosa Luxemburg is never at pains to offer a banal defence of democracy ‘in general’. Her attitude here is no more than the logical consequence of her false estimate of the distribution of power in the present stage of the revolution. For the attitude adopted by a revolutionary to the so-called problems of freedom in the age of the dictatorship of the proletariat depends in the last analysis entirely on whether he regards the Mensheviks as the enemies of the revolution or as one ‘current’ of the revolution, one that simply has a divergent opinion in isolated questions of tactics and organisation, etc.

Everything which Rosa Luxemburg has to say about the necessity of criticism and about public control would be subscribed to by every Bolshevik and by Lenin above all — as Rosa Luxemburg herself emphasises. The only question is how is all this to be realised, how is !freedom’ (and everything it entails) to be given a revolutionary and not a counter-revolutionary function? Otto Bauer, one of the cleverest opponents of the Bolsheviks, has grasped this problem with some clarity. He combats the ‘undemocratic’ nature of the Bolshevik state not merely with the aid of abstract reasons of natural law la Kautsky, but because the Soviet system prevents the ‘real’ consolidation of the classes in Russia, because it prevents the peasants from asserting themselves and hence the peasants are dragged along in the wake of the proletariat. In saying this he bears witness — against his will — to the revolutionary character of the Bolshevik ‘suppression of freedom’.

Rosa Luxemburg’s exaggeration of the organic nature of the course of the revolution forces her into the most startling contradictions. The Spartacus Programme had provided the basis in theory for the centrist quibbles about the distinction between ‘terror’ and ‘violence’ in which the latter was affirmed while the former was rejected. And here too, in this pamphlet we find the contrast made by the Dutch Communist Workers’ Party and the ‘KAP’ between the dictatorship of the party and the dictatorship of the class. Of course, when two people do the same thing (and even more when two people say the same thing) the result is not the same. However, even Rosa Luxemburg — just because she was becoming more and more remote from an understanding of the real structure of the opposing forces comes dangerously close to exaggerating utopian expectations and to anticipating later phases in the process. Such distinctions did in fact lead to utopian ism, a fate from which her, unfortunately too brief, practical activity in the revolution mercifully preserved her.

According to Rosa Luxemburg in her article against Lenin, the dialectical contradiction in the social-democratic movement consists in the fact that “for the first time in the history of civilisation the people are expressing their will consciously and in opposition to all ruling classes. But this will can only be satisfied beyond the limits of the existing system. Now the masses can only acquire and strengthen this will in the course of the day-to-day struggle against the existing social order — that is, within the limits of capitalist society. On the one hand, we have the masses; on the other, their historic goal, located outside existing society. On the one hand, we have the day-to-day struggle; on the other, the social revolution. Such are the terms of the dialectical contradiction in the social democratic movement ....[14]

This dialectical contradiction does not become any the less acute with the coming of the dictatorship of the proletariat: only its terms, the existing framework of action and that goal existing ‘beyond’ it, change their content. And the very problem of freedom and democracy that had seemed so simple while the war was fought out within bourgeois society because every foot of territory gained was won from the bourgeoisie, now advances dialectically to its crisis point. Even the actual process of wresting ‘freedoms’ from the bourgeoisie does not proceed in a straight line though, to be sure, the tactical goals which the proletariat set themselves did so and in an increasingly concentrated fashion. But now even this attitude must be modified. Lenin says of capitalist democracy that “developments do not always lead smoothly and directly to further democratisation”.[15] Nor can they, because socially the revolutionary period is marked by the constant, abrupt and violent changes that occur as a result of the economic crisis both in a dying capitalism and in a proletarian society striving to establish itself.

From this it follows that the continuous regrouping of revolutionary energies is a matter of life and death for the revolution. It is evident that the overall economic situation will sooner or later drive the proletariat to create a revolution on a global scale. This revolution must first be in a position to adopt economic measures that are truly socialist. In the interests of the further progress of the revolution and acting with full confidence in this knowledge it is essential for the proletariat to use all the means at its disposal to keep the power of the state in its own hands under all circumstances. The victorious proletariat must not make the mistake of dogmatically determining its policy in advance either economically or ideologically. It must be able to manoeuvre freely in its economic policy (socialisation, concessions, etc.) depending on the way the classes are restratified and also upon how possible and necessary it is to win over certain groups of workers for the dictatorship or at least to induce them to preserve their neutrality.

Similarly, it must not allow itself to be pinned down on the whole complex issue of freedom. During the period of the dictatorship the nature and the extent of freedom will be determined by the state of the class struggle, the power of the enemy, the importance of the threat to the dictatorship, the demands of the classes to be won over, and by the maturity of the classes allied to and influenced by the proletariat. Freedom cannot represent a value in itself (any more than socialisation). Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round. Only a revolutionary party like that of the Bolsheviks is able to carry out these often very sudden changes of front. Only such a party is sufficiently adaptable, flexible and independent in judgement of the actual forces at work to be able to advance from Brest-Litovsk and the war-communism of the fiercest civil wars to the new economic policy. Only the Bolsheviks will be able to progress from that policy (in the event of new shifts in the balance of power) to yet other power-groupings while preserving unimpaired the essential dominance of the proletariat.

However, in this flux one fixed pole has remained: the counter-revolutionary attitude of the other currents within the working-class movement. There is a straight line here running from Kornilov to Kronstadt* Their ‘critique’ of the dictatorship is not a self-criticism performed by the proletariat — the possibility of which must be kept open institutionally even under the dictatorship. It is a corrosive tendency in the service of the bourgeoisie. Engels’ remark to Bebel may rightly be applied to such tendencies. “So long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries."[16] And the fact that in the course of the revolution Rosa Luxemburg revised the views here analysed is certainly connected with the few months granted to her to experience intensively the actual progress of the revolution. This experience will undoubtedly have brought home to her the fallacies inherent in her earlier conception of its nature and in particular her mistaken view of the role played by opportunism, of the method of combating it and thence of the structure and function of the revolutionary party itself.

January 1922.